Artificial intelligence can help you learn what animals are talking about

Have you ever wondered what animals say to each other? Can artificial intelligence (AI) understand non-human communication? Tel Aviv University (Israel) researchers Yossi Yovel and Oded Rehavi delve into the complex issues of animal intelligence and communication in their essay titled “AI and Dr. Dolittle’s Problem,” published in Current Biology. They look at the possibilities and limitations of artificial intelligence in deciphering animal communication, drawing inspiration from the popular Dr. Dolittle series of children’s books.

Understanding Animal Communication

In the book Dr. Dolittle, the eponymous character learns to understand bird language with the help of a bilingual parrot named Polynesia. This fictional story prompted researchers to formulate their task as the “Dr. Dolittle challenge.” The key question is whether artificial intelligence can bridge the gap between humans and animals by comprehending their unique ways of communicating.

While humans can give words direct meaning, animal communication is much more nuanced. The researchers emphasize that understanding animal communication requires considering a variety of factors beyond just sound. They identify three major obstacles to doing so.

1. Context: Distinguishing the context of animal communication is crucial. Humans have been imitating and recording animal sounds for many years, successfully eliciting responses in a variety of species. For example, robotic frogs have attracted real male frogs for mating attempts, and robotic fish have interacted with live fish during training. A bee robot even managed to attract real bees by mimicking their “wagging dance,” which communicates the location of food in a colony.

However, reproducing animal sounds or behaviors does not guarantee a full understanding of their meaning. For example, bird songs generated by artificial intelligence can mimic a particular species, but cannot convey whether the bird is defending its territory, attracting a male, or communicating something completely different. Similar problems arise in deciphering non-vocal communication, such as chemical signals used by insects. Observing their behavior is very important to understand whether a chemical signal is a mating signal, a warning signal, or just a random signal.

2. Complexity: Animal communication is complex and multifaceted. It involves a combination of vocalization, body language, scent marking, and other forms of signaling. To truly understand animal communication, AI needs to decipher and interpret this complex interaction of signals.

3- Individuality: Animals, like humans, have individual differences in their communication styles. Each species may have its own dialects, variations, and idiosyncrasies. AI must take these individual differences into account in order to accurately interpret and respond to animal communication.

The role of artificial intelligence

AI has the potential to help understand animal communication, but it needs to overcome these obstacles. By analyzing vast amounts of data and patterns, AI can help researchers uncover the intricacies of animal communication systems. Machine learning algorithms can identify and classify different vocalizations or behavioral cues, allowing for a deeper understanding of animal intentions and emotions.

Experts’ views

Dr. Yossi Yovel, one of the scientists involved in the study, emphasizes the importance of AI in this field: “AI holds great promise for understanding animal communication. By combining advanced computational methods with behavioral observations, we will be able to unlock the secrets of non-human communication and tap into the rich world of animals.”

To quote Dr. Oded Rehavi, another researcher involved in the study, the following: “AI has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of animal communication. However, we must remain cautious and recognize the limitations. It is important to consider the broader context and individual differences in animal communication to truly bridge the gap between species.”


Dr. Dolittle’s challenge to understand animal communication through AI represents an exciting frontier in scientific research. While AI shows promise in deciphering animal languages, it must overcome challenges of context, complexity, and individuality. Combining AI with behavioral observations and expert judgment will allow researchers to unravel the mysteries of non-human communication and gain a deeper understanding of the animal world.

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